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175. Job 17:5-7, A Proverb and More Exhaustion
5 He who informs against friends for a share of the spoil,
The eyes of his children also will languish.
6 But He has made me a byword of the people,
And I am one at whom men spit.
7 My eye has also grown dim because of grief,
And all my members are as a shadow.
I see this next section as presenting an imperfectly developed proverb in verse 5, which provokes Job to say that God has made him like a proverb or a byword to people (v 6), a situation which has led to his humiliation. The humiliation then is captured in the powerful and hopeless image in verse 7, where the words “all my members are like a shadow” is reminiscent of the words of 16:16, where the “shadow of death” rested upon his eyelids. His seemingly endless and directionless descent into despair continues.
As with many proverbial-type statements, verse 5 is hard to translate. Word for word gives us:
“for a portion he declares/denounces his friends and even the eyes of his children shall fail.”
We see that the second half is a result following from the first half, but what that first half actually says is hard to say. Many translations render the first word as “flattery” but, make no mistake about it, the word is the 67x-appearing noun which is almost always rendered “share” or “portion” or “territory.”
Before trying to come to a closer understanding of the first clause, we have to admit likely failure when we read a translation proposal for the first part (Clines) such as, “[They are like] a man bidding his friends to a feast. . .” Clines takes the word “portion” to mean a “meal” or “feast” and the verb nagad (“declare”) as “invite.” We feel our desperation growing. But if we are aware of the “failing of eyes” clause in the second part, we are open to reading the first as something that might legitimately lead to “failure of eyes.” One proposal would be “for a portion (money/property), he denounces the friends.” Yet even if we come up with a serviceable translation, we don’t know what it means. It suggests a proverb like the following—
‘A person who denounces his friends for money (a “portion”), even the eyes of his children shall fail.’
But if that is the proverb that might lie behind verse 5, we have trouble with understanding how Job thinks it applies to this case. Have the friends ever been accused of having a monetary interest in their approach to Job? We can imagine various scenarios where they might be financially motivated to show their concern (e.g., they want to “inherit” some of Job’s property if he dies), but this has never been an allegation raised against them.
Perhaps Job sees that his proverb in verse 5 is going nowhere; lots of Proverbs in Job seemingly go nowhere, so he quickly shifts gears in verse 6. That, then, is how I read verse 5—another failed Joban proverb. Maybe by now he will leave proverbs to the book so named. But the connection to verse 6 should be clear. He, Job, is now the proverb or byword. The opening clause is “And he has placed/set me (yasag, 16x) as a byword/proverb/example of the people.” Though the word rendered as byword is the hapax meshol, it is obviously derived from the common (38x) word mashal(proverb). Job will be the living lesson for them.
And, what is that lesson? The second half of the verse tells us, literally, “I will become the spitting on the face,” or “I am become one in whose face they spit.” Job becomes an object lesson in humiliation, a theme he will further develop in Job 30. But wherever two or three interpreters are gathered together, there is Job in the midst of them, giving yet more possibilities for interpretation. Some older scholars and translators have taken the hapax topheth (translated “spitting” by most) to be instead derived from the noun toph, a tabret or tambourine, and not “spitting.” The verb from which topheth may be derived is taphaph (2x), which means “to beat on the tambourine.” If one were to go down that route in verse 7 the translation would be, “And (before) I was like a tambourine.” This translation presents all kinds of interesting non-sequiturs, none of which helps us here. Now you can see why I said that the major meaning for the chapter is lodged in three verses: 1, 7, 11. As we have seen, verses 2-6 don’t yield much light.
Job’s airplane, which had been circling the runway for several verses, now comes in for a landing in verse 7. Meaning returns, and it is expressed here through two three-word sequences. It reinforces the bleak conclusion of verse 1, where Job’s grave beckoned to him. Again, the translation must remain a bit tentative:
“My eyes are have wasted away/are dimmed because of anger/grief/vexation; and all my limbs/members are like a shadow.”
These six Hebrew words trigger numerous thoughts and speculations. The somewhat rare verb kahah (8x, “to be blind, darkened, faint, dim”) fits in neatly with the overall theme of exhaustion of the chapter. The eye’s “dimming/darkening” is a sure sign that death is on the way. Moses, in contrast to Job, was said to die “with eye undimmed” (lo kahatah is the phrase, Deuteronomy 34:7), with the word “eyes” also appearing in both passages. When Isaac was old and vulnerable, unaware that he was going to be the victim of a devastating ruse, he was described as having “eyes dimmed” (Genesis 27:1). Though the word has the literal meaning as given above, frailty and vulnerability is the social universe or reality occupied by a person with “dimmed” eyes.
Job’s eye is dimmed here not because of age, but because of kaas. The euphony is unmistakable— kahah/kaas. Why can such horrid realities be expressed in such winsome and harmonious ways? Part of the meaning of the phrase kahah/kaas may be found in the sounds themselves (the hard breathing of the “k,” which linguists call a voiceless velar stop or plosive), where the mere pronunciation of the double sound (ka-ka) makes it seem that Job’s breath may be escaping his lips one last time. But part of the meaning is no doubt in the words themselves. We have seen kaas (26x) a few times already (5:2; 6:2; 10:17). Kaas hasa linguistic arc ranging from annoyance through anger to grief, and it often is difficult to pin down precisely which meaning is in view. We can imagine Job’s eyes dimming, and energy flagging, here either out of anger or grief, though the latter makes more sense at this point. I have argued that Job’s anchor emotion in the first cycle of speeches is anger and the second cycle is grief, though the word kaas now neatly captures both.
The second three-word phrase moves us from Job’s inner emotion to the condition of his body. The word rendered “members/limbs” above is the hapax yatsur, obviously derived from the common verb yatsar (“to shape, form, create”). All of Job’s “shapings” or “forms” then are as a shadow. It is a thoughtful way to express the sum total of one’s bodily parts. Psalm 139:16, in eerily describing God’s looking at our unformed parts, used the hapax golem to describe the totality of the human’s in utero existence. But here “all of these formings” are as a shadow. The word “shadow” (tsel) requires no extensive linguistic exploration to conclude that it points to something insubstantial, something fleeting. Job had talked about his gauntness or thinness rising up to accuse him (16:8; interestingly using another “k” word, this time in an unusual way, kachash); now that thinness is developed to include the dim eye. The threefold cord of rough “ka” sounds will not easily be broken. Job is expelling his soul with each labored breath.
Though we need not take a linguistic journey on tsel,we pause on the word (“shadow”) before moving on. A shadow is something insubstantial, fleeting, wraith- or ghost-like. As one becomes weak in life, one’s vision is not only dimmed but one’s field of vision is reduced and occluded. Those in pain look straight ahead or look down at the ground; the alluring vistas of mountains or even the verdant grasses and vibrant displays of color are often ignored. Job’s field of vision is narrowing as his eye dims. Shakespeare could talk about the “insubstantial pageant” of this life that “faded,” much like the actors on the stage were melted into thin air (Tempest, Act IV); we get the same feeling here with Job as his weak frame and frail psyche conspire to rob him of the joy of living and prepare him for his inevitable death.